Leopard Ready to Leap at Long Last

The wait is over for Leopard. Apple’s delayed, upcoming version of its OS X operating system will go on sale next week — sporting a slew of Microsoft-rivaling enhancements.

Leopard, the codename for the sixth generation of the Mac’s OS X operating system, had been slated to be released in June. But Apple put the product, officially called Mac OS X 10.5, on hold because the company said it needed to devote more resources to finish work on the iPhone, still in development at the time.

When it goes on sale Friday evening, Oct. 26., with a $129 price tag, Leopard could offer features besting even Microsoft’s massive Windows Vista OS, some industry watchers say.

Leopard OS
Click on the graphic for a closeup of Leopard’s stacks

IDC analyst Richard Shim said Vista lags behind even Apple’s current-generation OS X 10.4, codenamed “Tiger”, which debuted in April 2005. Vista, of course, debuted in November 2006, more than five years after the last full Microsoft OS release.

Leopard, if it’s delivered without major bugs or other problems, promises to widen Apple’s edge, he told InternetNews.com.

“Some people would say Apple lapped Vista on features with Tiger; now they have a chance to do it again,” Shim said.

In particular, he credited Apple with focusing on a few key features users can easily grasp, while in Vista, “they inundate you. It’s like a lot of voices yelling at you.”

While Apple’s share of the PC market is less than 5 percent, it’s been growing at a rate more than double the rest of the industry for the past year. Shim said one of main reasons Mac sales are surging is the user experience.

“The market is starting to realize it’s not just making inexpensive hardware but the software and tying it altogether for a good user experience,” he said.

He added that Apple has tighter control of its experience because it directs both the PC hardware and software; Microsoft’s OS is available on a multitude of different vendors PCs.

“There are a lot of parties in the Windows world with different agendas, hardware and software partners, even internally at Microsoft,” Shim said.

Apple said Leopard has more than 300 new features. Chief among those is a new desktop design called Stacks, which offers a new way to more easily access files from the Dock.

Another enhancement, Quick Look, lets users preview files without opening the associated application. Despite the feature’s name, Quick Look offers more than a cursory glance; users can preview pages of a PDF document, Excel spreadsheet, Word document and other formats, including movie files.

Leopard also introduces Time Machine, which automatically backs up files on the Mac and makes retrieving files almost more of a game than a chore. Functionally, Time Machine is similar to the Windows System Restore feature that enables PC users to find old files or call up an earlier system state.

But with Time Machine, which requires a separate backup hard drive, file folders appear to be floating in 3D space, with earlier versions farther in the background. Type the name of a deleted or missing file to be restored, and the folder visually flips back to earlier versions, until it reaches the moment when it last contained the document. Click “Restore,” and the file is again available in the folder.

If necessary, Leopard can also restore an entire system from Time Machine data on an external drive.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a statement that Leopard is “the best upgrade we’ve ever released.”

In a preview of Leopard at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Jobs also touted its full native 64-bit support which he said will make it the first mainstream 64-bit   operating system.

Microsoft offers separate 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and XP. The standard version of Leopard will run both 32-bit and 64-bit apps, the latter of which can hold more far more data in memory so it’s of particular benefit to high end photo and animation applications.

In addition to hitting retail shelves next Friday, Leopard also will begin coming pre-installed on new Macs. Apple also said anyone who bought a Mac this month from the company or from an authorized resellers can order an upgrade for $9.95.

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